Legal counsel to Oregon's Narcotics Enforcement Agency and president of the Oregon Alliance for Drug-Endangered Children, Rob Bovett is a leading supporter of Oregon laws to put cold and allergy medicines behind the counter. Here, he talks about how Oregon is dealing with the meth crisis, how Mexico's cartels fueled the epidemic, and the consequences of the pharmaceutical industry's opposition to regulation. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 22, 2005.
What has been the impact of meth on Oregon?
Huge. It's an enormous impact. It's an epidemic. It affects all walks of life in Oregon, from children to adults, to the addiction that feeds into property crimes, to the poisoning of homes in the environment and the drug-endangered kids who are living in these meth labs and these toxic environments, to severe child neglect. It's across the board. …
How is Oregon dealing with this problem?
It's the folks on the front line, and it's the cops, and it's the social workers; it's the treatment providers, the counselors. They realize how bad an epidemic this has become, and they're screaming for relief. And the little relief we've been able to afford so far has gone a long way to allowing them to spread the resources better. We've got fewer and fewer resources in Oregon to deal with this growing epidemic.
What is the difference between amphetamines and meth?
Amphetamine is basically a watered-down version of methamphetamine. From a chemical perspective, methamphetamine is amphetamine with a methyl group, if you're interested in the science of it. But it's pretty much like a high-octane gasoline versus a low-octane gasoline. Methamphetamine, of course, is the high-octane version. …
Meth is destroying homes. It's functionally impossible to be a meth addict and a parent at the same time. The cycle of meth addiction means you're staying high for days on end, you're tweaking out for days on end, and then you are sleeping in deep sleep for days on end.
You can't be a parent, and you can't function in society very well when you do that, so for many folks it's a choice of being a parent or being addicted to meth, and regrettably, a lot of meth addicts make the choice to be an addict, not because they want to but because that addiction grabs them so hard.
Is there such a thing as a recreational meth user?
Well, back in the '70s and early '80s, I think there were some folks that were recreational meth users, but with the purity of meth that we've got on the street, the crystal, the ice stuff that's being injected and smoked, I just don't know any recreational users of methamphetamine anymore.
What is its impact on society?
Well, addiction is addiction is addiction. You can treat meth addiction much like any other form of addiction. The treatment does work.
The difference with the meth epidemic is that it's [got] an impact on society and on children. A lot of folks can be flaming alcoholics and still manage to get by in daily life. It obviously negatively impacts their life in many different ways, but they function in society, and generally they don't severely neglect or abuse their children, [although] there's exceptions.
With meth addition, it's a whole different cycle. You just can't function in society. You can't raise your children. You get hooked into the meth addiction pattern, and you can't get out.
What efforts have been made to control the basic ingredient?
… You need pseudoephedrine to make the type of meth we're dealing with on the street today. And the pharmaceuticals have a huge economic built-in incentive to fight control of pseudoephedrine, and they've been fighting that fight for about 20 years. They've stepped in, both at a state and a federal level.
At a federal level, they effectively watered down a legislation in the mid-90s and the early 2000s to control pseudoephedrine. They watered it down to the point where it basically was rendered meaningless.
At a state level, they've been fighting it in each and every state for a lot of years. My first experience with them was in 2001, here at the Oregon [State] Legislature, where I tried to work cooperatively with them to get effective controls on pseudoephedrine. That didn't work. They gave a lot of issues on other ingredients, but not pseudoephedrine.
In 2003, we decided to fight them, and we fought the good fight. But in the spring, it was raining in Oregon, and it wasn't raining water. It was raining pharmaceutical lobbyists, and they basically wiped us out in 2003.
This year is different. 2005, we're making some strong headway in effective controls of pseudoephedrine.
It's been devastating. Their efforts have been devastating to our efforts to control this epidemic and stem the tide. I think we're finally at the point where the meth epidemic has spread across the nation [and] has devastated so many families and communities and our friends and family as well that they can't overpower the force that's driving effective pseudoephedrine control now, both at an international and a national and statewide level. …
Well, it's probably no news that the pharmaceutical lobby is very well funded. The stats I heard were they have multiple lobbyists for every single member of Congress back in Washington, D.C., so they've got the resources to lobby hard and to fund their lobbying efforts very well, and they were very successful in the late '90s and early 2000s, no doubt.
The pharmaceutical lobby in Washington, D.C., prevented us from controlling the meth epidemic early, and it had to get really bad before various politicians and legislators would listen to others other than the pharmaceutical lobbyists.
How strong are pharmaceutical profits that they prompt such a strong lobby?
I'll give you an example. The DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] commissioned a study back in 2001 to look at the Portland-area convenience stores, and what that study concluded was that about 75 percent of the pseudoephedrine that was going into those convenience stores was being diverted to make methamphetamine. The pharmaceutical companies are getting paid for those products whether they're being diverted or not. It doesn't matter. They're still making their money.
In Oregon, we know that the pseudoephedrine sales were skyrocketing throughout the late '90s and the early 2000s, and the demand for cold and allergy medicines didn't increase at the level that it was skyrocketing. And that's true not just for our state but for many other states and many other countries as well. And that tracks very well with what happened to the pseudoephedrine market and how much was being diverted to make meth.
Interestingly enough, since we put into place our effective controls on pseudoephedrine, the pseudoephedrine wholesale market in Oregon has receded back down to where it should be based on legitimate demand, and that dovetails exactly with our reduction in the incidence of meth labs here in Oregon and Oklahoma. …
How much cold medicine should stores be selling to meet legitimate demand?
Convenience stores in the Portland-area market should have been selling $30 to $40 worth of a particular pseudoephedrine product every month per convenience store. Instead, many of the convenience stores were selling thousands of dollars' worth of this product each month -- astronomical volumes of pseudoephedrine beyond what the legitimate need actually was. Some convenience stores, based on another recent study, had been selling more pseudoephedrine products than Coca-Cola. …
In light of these sales, this diversion, what are your thoughts about the pharmaceutical industry?
Well, I think they've been ignoring the reality. Whether they knew that a huge portion of their market for pseudoephedrine was being diverted or they didn't know, they were ignoring the reality of what their products were being used for, and their attempts to fight at every level effective control on pseudoephedrine meant they were making money off of human misery. …
What is Oregon's strategy against home labs?
Our first effective strategy was in 2001. We tried to control the precursor ingredients necessary to make meth. Pseudoephedrine of course is the key ingredient, and we [worked] cooperatively with the lobbyists.
Basically the legislative approach that year was to stick me in a room with 12 lobbyists. And I can say this because I'm a lawyer: There is something worse than being stuck in a room with a dozen lawyers, and that's being stuck in a room with a dozen lobbyists. You can't take a shower long enough to wipe off the grime from that type of experience.
But what I didn't know then and I do know now is that basically what they were there to do was to give me any regulation and control of any of the precursor ingredients used to make meth except for effective controls of pseudoephedrine, and I wasn't able to get that in 2001. We controlled a lot of other ingredients. We were hoping to make a dent, and we didn't make hardly any dent at all.
How does Mexican meth fit in?
That's exploded over the last few years, because 65 percent of the meth that is on our streets today is coming from super labs controlled by the six major Mexican drug-trafficking cartels. So we are urging Congress, and we've pushed forth legislation that has recently passed the House, to get effective controls on the international diversion of pseudoephedrine feeding these super labs that are flooding the United States with pure crystal meth.
Have there been any controls imposed by Mexico?
One of the responses could be, "You guys didn't control it when you should have. Why are you putting the burden on us to control it now?" And there's some legitimacy to that argument.
On the other hand, the volume of bulk pseudoephedrine going into Mexico right now is unjustifiable. It's extreme. There is no legitimate argument that Mexican consumers could consume that much pseudoephedrine. A bulk of it is going to the super labs that are literally tearing down our communities, and that needs to be stopped, and we need to enact effective international controls on the pseudoephedrine that's coming out of these nine factories around the world.
Could we have controlled it earlier, and what are the prospects for controlling it in the future?
Effective controls on pseudoephedrine could have been done a long time ago, and we would have avoided the meth epidemic that we're in now, both at an international and national and state level.
I am optimistic for the first time in a long time, and we just saw the United States Congress on the House side pass nearly unanimously what I believe will be effective controls on the international diversion of pseudoephedrine, empowering our State Department and our DEA to impose economic sanctions if necessary on countries that don't control that international diversion of pseudoephedrine.
This is a totally unnecessary epidemic. Methamphetamine, unlike most other hard drugs out there, is uniquely susceptible to supply-side intervention because it's not something you can grow. It's not something you get out of poppy fields or out of coca plants. It's something you've got to cook up in a factory. You've got to make this stuff, and you've got to have pseudoephedrine to make the type of meth we're dealing with now in our epidemic. We could have controlled it decades ago. We didn't. We now need to control it. …
Well, phenylephrine is another decongestant. Unlike some of the press stories, it's not new. It's been around for a long time. It's been used in a variety of products, but some of the major pharmaceutical manufacturers I think have seen the handwriting on the wall. I believe it's for economic reasons, but I don't care why. Good for them. They're switching to phenylephrine, a product that doesn't convert to meth, and those products are already on the shelves in many states like Oregon and Oklahoma and Iowa and other states that have enacted effective controls on pseudoephedrine. And I think the rest of the pharmaceuticals are scrambling to catch up with Pfizer and a few of the others.
Why did it take so long?
I think the economic incentive needed to be there. We needed to deny them shelf space on grocery stores and convenience stores across Oregon and Oklahoma and Iowa and a few other states before we gave them enough economic incentive to want their shelf space back.
Were they under pressure to delay production of this new product?
Interestingly enough, half of the pharmaceuticals are now not lobbying against us. We're left with about half of the pharmaceuticals that were late to the game to switch to phenylephrine. They are fighting tooth and nail in Congress to water down the national legislation and to pre-empt all the states from the effective controls they've put into place. So we're counterfighting aggressively to avoid watering it down or pre-empting the states from doing what they need to do.
… I think the tide is turning, because enough Congress folks have had their communities devastated by the meth epidemic that they're not paying as much attention to those pharmaceutical [companies] as they used to. …
How do you account for the delay in getting lawmakers to notice?
Well, it's mind-boggling, but you've got to realize you've got to chase the money sometimes, and sometimes the money speaks louder than what's happening in our communities, and that's regrettable. That's unfortunate, and it shouldn't be that way, but sometimes it is. This is a perfect example of how the system can fail because of lobbying efforts. …
What is the worst thing you've seen as a result of the spread of meth?
The worst things that we see in the meth epidemic are of course the drug-endangered children who are forced to live in the toxic hell of either a meth lab environment or a meth house.
What that entails is severe, severe, severe neglect of a type you can't even describe in words. You have to see it for yourself. And to live in a home where meth is cooked up takes the neglect and adds a layer of toxicity and poisoning that is unimaginable. The filth and the conditions and the poisoning is unacceptable and should be stopped.
Like many Oregonians, I have friends and family who have been personally impacted by meth addiction and the devastation it wreaks on children, and I am passionate about the cause of drug-endangered children, in relieving them from the burden of having to grow up in an environment where methamphetamine is consumed and abused and used.
How does meth compare with other habit-forming drugs like crack cocaine?
Well, I think in a lot of ways the system reacted completely differently, regrettably for the wrong reasons. Crack cocaine of course isn't extracted from pseudoephedrine or any other legitimate product out there. It's trafficked by drug-trafficking organizations from Colombia or wherever. Methamphetamine can be brewed up in your neighbor's next-door kitchen. It's a different type of drug. It's more powerful.
The crack epidemic largely affected the inner-city areas in certain cities. Methamphetamine knows no borders, knows no boundaries. It's in the inner cities all right, but it's also in rural communities across the land. It's a powerful, powerful stimulant drug that knows no boundaries, knows no racial profiles, knows no socioeconomic boundaries. It can impact anyone and anywhere.
Who is the lobbyist for blue-collar, small-town people?
Regrettably, methamphetamine was ignored for a lot of years. Now, I've got to tell you, the congressional delegations from West Coast states like Oregon and Washington have long been screaming about the meth epidemic, but it really took the meth epidemic to spread across the land before it got congressional attention.
Is the Meth epidemic spreading?
Unlike cocaine, the meth epidemic truly started on the West Coast, spread to the Midwest, and now in the last year or so has impacted the East Coast in a major way. Huge volumes of methamphetamine are being shipped up through the hub of Atlanta and are flooding the East Coast right now, and that's bad and good. That's bad for the East Coast because now they're feeling the meth epidemic for the first time. It's good for the West Coast in the sense that Congress is finally starting to pay attention.